Distress on the Mon

Rankin, Braddock remain mired in Act 47 muddle

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Homestead was removed last week from the state's program for financially distressed communities after 13 years, but its neighbors across the Monongahela River, Rankin and Braddock, have little hope of getting out of the program any time soon.

In the 20 years since the state Legislature passed Act 47, 23 municipalities have participated in the program. It provides a recovery coordinator and special grants and loans to help municipalities that fall on hard times due to the loss of a major industry or other circumstances beyond their control.

Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
Across the Monongahela River from Homestead is the Carrie Furnace site in Rankin and Swissvale.
Click photo for larger image.

Homestead became the sixth to come out of distress, joining Ambridge, East Pittsburgh, North Braddock and Wilkinsburg in this part of the state.

Braddock, one of the first municipalities approved for the program, was decimated when suburban shopping centers sucked stores out of its once-thriving business district. Rankin, which fell into distress shortly after Braddock, suffered a sharp decline when steel companies that once lined the riverbank closed.

Going forward, the consensus among local and state officials is that Rankin is likely to recover before Braddock, but neither of them will make it any time soon.

The state can do only so much to help, said Dennis Yablonsky, secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which administers the program.

"They've been in there forever," conceded Mr. Yablonsky. "Act 47 is not a panacea. It was put into place to prevent municipal bankruptcy. Once you stabilize a community, the key is how you grow the revenue base."

Joseph Hohman, whose company Resource Development and Management is the recovery coordinator for both boroughs, agreed.

"The road going forward is going to be rocky for both of them," said Mr. Hohman.

Rankin is pinning its hopes for recovery on redevelopment of the Carrie Furnace site, a flat, 137-acre parcel of riverfront land with a small part in Swissvale and the rest in Rankin. Allegheny County bought the land two years ago from Park Corp., which redeveloped the former Homestead Works of U.S. Steel in Homestead, Munhall and West Homestead into the thriving Waterfront shopping and entertainment complex.

Three weeks ago, Gov. Ed Rendell designated the Carrie Furnace site for special Brownfield Action Team assistance, which will move it to the top of the list for state help. The county expects to begin infrastructure and site improvements this summer and advertise for development proposals early next year with a goal of having offices, light industry and housing there.

"Hopefully, the Carrie Furnace site will help Rankin," Mr. Hohman said. "I know when I was development director for the county, everybody wanted to believe these sites could be redeveloped quickly. I always thought we were looking at a 15- to 20-year period."

Rankin Mayor Nick Glova sees signs of rebirth even beyond the potential at the Carrie Furnace site. The tiny borough had about eight new homes built last year and expects at least four more this year.

Although Rankin has been in financial distress longer than Homestead, Mr. Glova said he's not disheartened that Homestead has been quicker to recover, thanks to The Waterfront.

"I'm happy with their success," he said. "It was disheartening to look across and see nothing there.

"We are really looking forward to moving ahead on Carrie Furnace. That's an essential part in bringing back not only Rankin but Braddock, North Braddock and Swissvale. It's a long haul, I believe, but we're optimistic."

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman doesn't share that optimism for his borough.

Braddock will benefit only from spillover at the Carrie Furnace site -- which likely would occur after that site is well along -- unless the municipalities agree to some sort of tax-sharing plan to benefit the region. The project isn't far enough along yet for that possibility to be discussed.

Mr. Fetterman agreed with Mr. Glova that decades-long concentration on the proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway have discouraged other plans for the area. (See Mr. Fetterman's letter to the editor on page EZ-2.) He wants the state Turnpike Commission to set a deadline of December 2008 for securing funding for the project or abandon it.

Another anvil holding down Braddock's recovery, Mr. Fetterman said, is the large number of old buildings that can't be rehabilitated. Homestead has empty buildings in its business district, but they are usable because they haven't been gutted and had their copper pipes and wiring stolen like many of those in Braddock, he said.

"Our chances of moving out of Act 47 are slim," he said. "We're all Act 47, but when you compare us to others in Act 47, we're still significantly far behind."

Ed Blazina can be reached at eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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